reading: Between the World and Me

January 2, 2016


Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, Between the World and Me, is a winding path through a black man's hopes, fears, and wishes for his son. If The New Jim Crow is the book that can wake people up to current racial disparities in the United States, Coates' book is the one that will make people feel those disparities. This book tears at the reader: it doesn't allow the reader to coldly reason through racism, it places the reader in an experience in which their body, and their childrens' bodies, are constantly under threat.

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”


I found myself seriously challenged by Coates' view of school. He saw school and the streets as one, both places that lead to the destruction of his body. He spoke about how even the best intentioned teachers could not escape the implications of the institution. This is something that I see and experience. It is something to really ruminate on. What can I do in my pace to begin to change this? What paths should I take in the future to change this?

“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

“If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.”

He spoke about the Dreamers, the people who believe they are white, and noted that his son would have to struggle against this Dream that endangered his body and protected the bodies of others. But, he also noted that it is not the job of black people to wake up the Dreamers. It is the job of the white people themselves to understand the struggle and decide what to do. Which is interesting, because his book in a way is speaking to to white people, along with his son, and I think it woke me up to many ideas and understandings.

“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

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